The Cautionary Tale of Hunter S. Thompson
Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’ swingin’ madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’
And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow you’re
Seein’ that he’s chasing . . .
— Bob Dylan, “Mr. Tamborine Man”
If they’d just left the poor bastard alone. If he’d just been allowed to shoot off guns, take mescaline while lounging naked in public areas, blow up the occasional jeep with gasoline and dynamite . . . everything would have been fine. To all of those crew-cut wearing cops and their higher-ups in Chicago and New York and Washington D.C. . . . you blew it, man. Never piss off a writer. At least . . . not the wrong writer.
A lot has been written, said, filmed and hypothesized about Hunter S. Thompson; affectionate, semi-reverential, overblown, angry, offended and derisive. These tomes run the gamut in describing the man’s antics and humor, usually equipped with a first-person account that resulted in one or more felonies. Either outraged anger or eye-tearing laughter (or both) followed in his wake, and the legend had grown by another brick. It continues to do so, even after his death. Reading the articles and books he wrote that caused all of the ruckus in the first place, one gets a picture of a man entombed inside his own legend. But where I really got a glimpse of the man himself was in his letters.
All kinds of letters—Thompson wrote a letter complaining to the local television station owner that he was guilty of contributing to the dumbing down of America. Thompson wrote a satirical letter to the editor of the Aspen Times about endorsing the purchase of riot gear for the small, rural community of Pitkin County. He wrote letters to his friends and colleagues, including Charles Kuralt, Tom Wolfe, Pat Buchanan, Walter Mondale, Ralph Steadman, William Kennedy, Oscar Acosta. He wrote letters to his mother, Virginia Thompson, his brothers, and later his son, Juan. He wrote to politicians and activists he admired or with whom he wanted to collaborate, to his employers, Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone and Jim Silberman at Random House, and his agent. The collection of letters, musings, outlines for books, invoices and diatribes is alternately scathing, hilarious, serious, melancholy, lonely, angry, happy and poignant as hell.
Another window into Thompson: documentaries. Here is the man in grinning, mumbling technicolor, with that half-sardonic smile broken by a cigarette filter and fitted around witticisms that careen unexpectedly into a surprisingly vulnerable sincerity. It’s the sincerity that often bites even deeper, like when he describes his experiences at the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, or later, his inability to avoid his own invention of himself in order to go back to being a Journalist.
At times, in hearing others speak about him, you feel more like you’re witnessing the vague attempts of friends and enemies to use the tools of the subject himself—in the same way that Thompson retyped the words of his favorite authors, over and over, trying to catch the flavor of their inner brilliance. However well-written and sincere these biographical blurbs may be, they all start to bleed together after awhile, and to contain an overarching similarity.
What impacted me most, rereading the books of the late great Hunter S. Thompson, was the voice of hope. To me, Thompson seems to have been trying to bring that voice back, again and again.
There was a fantastical universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning . . .
And that, I think, was the handle–that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting–on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark–that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Other Stories
His voice remained the voice of his generation, of that optimism and need for things to be better, for us to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Whether you agree with his politics or not is almost besides the point.
Even today, reading Thompson steeps me in a kind of perverse nostalgia for a time when the direction of culture seemed filled with hope, eyes raised upward. Drugged-out and half-crazed as he often was, he carried within him the conscience of a generation—a sense of responsibility to a community of people. He continued in that voice up until the day he died, warning people about the Kingdom of Fear and the ongoing erosion of the way of life for which America had once been known. When he first entered the scene, that voice was new, and yet it resonated with a whole mass of people who lived under the same political and social influences. The older voices of establishment media and government didn’t yet know what to do with someone like Thompson.
Perhaps because of our own historical amnesia, or his rock-star status, it often seems to be missed that, first and foremost, Hunter was a journalist. As such, he dissected the present. He acted as philosopher and commentator to help his readers understand political and social events within a particular context. In reading his letters, you really get a sense of the deliberateness of his stylistic choices. He invented “gonzo journalism” not with an eye to merge fiction and nonfiction, which seems to be the current drumbeat, but to use subjective experience as a means of ascertaining deeper truths on the events and people about which he wrote.
There’s a big difference. In the mystique around who he was and what he consumed, people seem to miss the thread of journalistic integrity woven through everything he wrote, even the most seemingly drug-crazed tomes and wild exaggerations and outright lies. Oddly, in their own way, they all served the truth. The truth wasn’t a universal one, perhaps. It certainly wasn’t a mainstream truth, or a partisan truth, or even an ideological truth . . . but it was his, and that in a way gave it more integrity than any of these agendas.
What he sought wasn’t a mere recounting of the facts, but an actual understanding of the world in which he found himself. The truth that lay behind the bald facts was a story with personal experience and emotional impact. Thus gonzo journalism created something very different than Western media had ever seen.
In this sense, Thompson shared more similarities with artists (re: “Artists use lies to tell the truth,” Alan Moore) versus the majority of modern day journalists, who Thompson argued were in pursuit of the exact opposite. Yet Thompson also felt he was helping to fill a widening information gap made by changes in journalism that were occurring in his lifetime. In letters to friends and fellow writers, Thompson laments the decline of magazines such as LOOK and Harpers, which previously had employed writers such as Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Wolfe. Thompson states:
The real horror, to me, lies in the fact that there is absolutely no vehicle in American journalism for the kind of “sensitive” and “intellectual” and essentially moral/merciless reporting that we all understand is necessary–not only for the survival of good journalism in this country, but for the dying idea that you can walk up to a newsstand (or a mag-rack in Missoula) and find something that will tell you what is really happening . . .
—Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist (The Gonzo Letters, Vol II, 1968-1976)
He lamented the loss of a kind of philosophical journalism, where journalism didn’t simply arrange facts either to inform or to persuade, but actually dissected the news of the world, in an attempt to understand it, to contextualise the events historically for the reader. These journalists weren’t simply parrots of information fed to them by external sources; they attempted to bring a deeper meaning in the retelling of these events, to bring education, experience, knowledge, research and insight to bear on what occurred in the wider world.
These journalists were on-the-ground and in-the-minute historians. They gave people something deeper to ponder, a philosophical grounding of the events of the world that would allow them to make connections from one event to the other, to see the larger picture that is history . . . in the very moment it is occurring. Thompson lamented the passing of this old guard, and witnessed its disappearance, just as we are now witnessing the demise of print media and the Woodward and Bernstein-type journalism in which I grew up believing.
Today we don’t have time to determine if the facts we are hearing are true–let alone ponder the historical and philosophical meaning of world events. Oftentimes we are presented with blatantly false information. The current media is rigged for speed over quality, and the public, as a result, may not hunger for anything deeper. In a somewhat prescient letter to Tom Wicker at the NY Times, Thompson’s writes about a parallel trend during his time:
What is happening all around us . . . is a sort of tandem nightmare in which there are fewer and fewer examples of the kind of journalism [that] is necessary . . . and meanwhile more and more people are using that scarcity as an excuse or maybe even a good reason to turn their backs (or heads) on journalism entirely. The people I deal with most often–for good or ill–simply don’t relate to newspapers or magazines. They might scan a daily paper for something specific–something they’re looking for–but the idea of reading a paper for “news” or general information . . . simply doesn’t occur to them. A lot of them read the paper, but it’s more for amusement than wisdom . . . (Ibid.)
In fact, most modern day “opinion” shows have become vehicles of pure aggrandizement, scandal and the creation and enactment of political theater, rather than an attempt to contextualise or understand events in history.
The key to making gonzo honest was to be in the action, to be a part of the story. I think somehow that got lost for a lot of people, when they began trying to use Thompson’s style as a particular kind of manic voice and not a method of writing about current events. For example, gonzo journalism won’t work for armchair writers, or what Thompson himself terms “Essayists”. In talking to Jim Silberman about a book project known as only “The American Dream” in 1968, Thompson is explicit about the need to be a part of the action on the ground. He writes:
I can’t sit out here and ruminate on the Death of the American Dream. That’s what I tried to impress on you . . . the importance of providing, in the contract, for adequate expense money to let me get involved. Otherwise, I’ll sit out here and serve up a bunch of pompous bullshit . . .
. . . [w]hich boils down to the simple, flat and absolute fact that I have no intention of writing an Essay. That’s what critics are for, so let’s give them something to chew on. (Ibid.)
Sadly, involvement in the story is what news outlets can no longer afford, and the rise of online media, which is full of aggregators, distances us even more from actual news. Nowadays events are reported through the web at lightning speed, sometimes originating in first person accounts, but the commentary and “reporting” on these events is often missing the immediate context in addition to the historical and cultural one. And the more cut off our news is, the more cut off we are from it.
In that sense, Thompson is right when he defends the need for contextual subjectivity in journalism. Note the article he wrote after the death of Nixon, his archnemesis:
Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful . . .
–“He Was a Crook,” Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994
Thompson didn’t stand for any particular set of candidates. He lambasted Democrats alongside Republicans, some of his more vitriolic comments reserved for Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie, who were Democratic opponents of McGovern in the same election. He openly endorsed the candidate who struck him as the “only honest man in politics” (McGovern) not because he was climbing the ladder of any party hierarchy or even seeking access as a journalist to the corridors of power that would help him do his job. There was nothing in it for him, in fact, other than to uphold his own ideals of truth.
Alas, he ended up becoming what he swore he never wanted to be, someone outside the action, unable to go anywhere without being recognized, unable to blend into the news and become one with it, and therefore unable to get at the truth.
That search for truth is what set him apart from everyone who’s tried to emulate him since. In the majority, those same writers have focused on the drugs and the craziness and missed the essential core of the man. He was an idealist, in the highest sense of the word. Writing was his weapon of choice, and the drugs were part of his subjective reality.
Julie Andrijeski has published short stories in webzines based in USA and Australia, as well as nonfiction articles, including a cover story for NY Press. She’s also written a children’s story illustrated and published in a collection by bizarro fictionist Andrew Goldfarb entitled Ogner Stump’s 1,000 Sorrows. She recently completed the first novel in a proposed series with the working title Allie’s War: Part 1, Rook, and a draft of the second. She is also in progress on a graphic version of Rook and a middle grade novel and has worked on a number of short independent films. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon with a disgruntled rabbit named Hazel, and a bird named Philemon who runs the joint.